Alana Firl (03/24/04)
This week we had a brief discussion of questions concerning the Mars/Antarctica analogue, and then David Marchant came and gave a presentation on what it's like to gather a team and do research in Antarctica.
One thing that really stood out to me was the extreme “leave no trace” policy that you have to use in Antarctica. It really goes to show how well things are preserved in such extreme cold and dryness. I thought it very interesting that one could find bacteria samples dating back from 10-15 million years ago, because that seems like the sort of thing only a human could notice—I can't imagine one of the Mars rovers finding and recognizing a rock with evidence of bacteria that has been dead for millions of years. And doing the necessary beryllium-10 dating would surely present complications as well.
It would seem that you could really determine the difference between the value of human versus machine exploration using Antarctica. How would the information about Antarctica differ if we only sent rovers down to explore? It would be interesting to see the discrepancies between the observations. Certainly the rover data is very valuable, but can that compensate for the creativity and observation skills of a human?
It's fun to think of Antarctica as an artificial Mars; regarding Antarctica as such SOMEHOW reminds me of Jurassic Park—the idea of a substitute reality, mostly. Listening to David Marchant talk about working in Antarctica made me really want to go there—I would love to explore and analyze an environment that is so wholly different from what most people are used to, and that is presumably so similar to Mars. If they ever do send people to Mars, will they use Antarctica as part of the training process?
Marchant's mention of “cancer” in the camp and the importance of compatible personalities was kind of funny; it made me wonder how much Antarctica can test a person's rationale after several weeks. And the “issues” that inevitably arise in New Zealand, like that woman who didn't want to write back to her husband—what does that say about human nature, I wonder? Perhaps in general, people who want to go to Antarctica to begin with are the ones who specifically should not go. It must take a lot of practice and experience to pick out a good team—Marchant's window test does seem to reveal significant underlying personality traits. Odd how such small things can be so revealing. I have a lot of respect for Oates. I hope that were I in a similar situation, I would do the same as he.As for the accuracy of the Mars/Antarctica comparison, the real question seems to be less about whether can life exist, but has it. Judging by the extremes endured and evolutionary resourcefulness demonstrated by life on Earth, it isn't too surprising that some simple life forms could scrape by. The fact that Antarctica was once a tropical component of Gondwana confirms the fact that life could and did exist there once. And as changes in climate happened slowly, after Antarctica broke away from the mainland and migrated south, life forms such as bacteria were able to change with the times and stay alive. It was fortunate that the high salinity prevented freezing and that iron provided nourishment, but again we have determined that similar conditions exist on Mars. So perhaps a more pertinent question regarding life on Mars would be: was life ever feasible at some point in time? It would seem that once begun, life is amazingly tenacious—survival is what it's best at.